Illawarra have secured their position in the 2017 Intrust Super Premiership Finals series with a thrilling 28-all draw against the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs at WIN Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
There were worrying signs early for the hosts, with the Bulldogs able to charge down a kick to gain possession in handy field position. The risky play paid off when Renouf To’omaga scored the game's first try.
The visitors continued their strong start by shifting the ball out wide to Reimis Smith, who brushed past Illawarra's defence to extend their lead.
Illawarra responded through Izaac Thompson who received a quality cut-out pass from playmaker Jack Payne to plant it down in the corner.
Former Illawarra winger Tom Carr rubbed salt into the wounds of former teammates soon after when he scored. Rod Griffin followed suit for the Bulldogs to give his a 22-6 half-time lead.
Illawarra debutant Matt Jurd started the second half after Sam Clune was rushed to hospital due to a throat injury suffered in the first 40.
Jurd's involvement was cruelly cut short however when he was concussed 30 seconds into the second stanza. His head knock followed Will Matthews's earlier blow – leaving Illawarra with one man on the bench for the entire second half.
Jai Field scored the first try of the second half however which narrowed the deficit to just 10 points.
Richie Kennar scored a classy try for the Bulldogs midway through the half though to help extend the visitors' lead again.
Three tries in the final 14 minutes kept Illawarra's season alive and it began when Field had his second after weaving his way through following a scrum.
Payne kept the comeback going when set up Jacob Hind's 20-metre effort in the final eight minutes.
The result came down to the final play of the match, where Illawarra chanced their arm. It started with Jake Marketo who goose stepped his way through Bulldogs defenders.
The Illawarra hooker linked up with Adam Clune out wide, who then threw it out for Patrick Herbert – the Junior Kiwis representative diving over to level the scores at 28.
Field was unable to convert the try from the sideline but the draw was still sufficient enough to keep Illawarra's finals hopes alive.
Illawarra will meet the Mounties at UOW Jubilee Oval, Kogarah on Sunday September 3.
Illawarra 28 (Jai Field 2, Izaac Thompson, Jacob Hind, Patrick Herbert tries; Jai Field 4 goals) drew with Bulldogs 28 (Renouf To'omaga, Reimis Smith, Thomas Carr, Rod Griffin, Richie Kennar tries; Rhyse Martin 4 goals) at WIN Stadium, Wollongong. Half-time: Bulldogs 22-6.